War over rubber leaves thousands homeless in Basilan

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Southern Philippines – The clash between the military and suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Sumisip, Basilan earlier this month is exacerbating the island province’s already burgeoning problem of internal displacement.

A report from the United Nations (UN) Protection Cluster Mindanao shows that 1,093 families from two Basilan towns, totalling 5,465 persons, left their homes after a previous round of hostilities early in July. And, since “the tension is still high,” they have yet to return.

Of that number, 966 families, representing 4830 persons, come from Sumisip where, last Aug. 15, a 30-minute encounter killed one and injured four from the military and a still undetermined number of casualties or injuries on the part of the suspected ASG members.

“Children and women are suffering from fear, insecurity brought by the displacement and frequent movement. (There are) no evacuation camps,” read the Protection Cluster Mindanao that was report released two weeks before the latest skirmish.

The people, the report added, are “staying in public markets” and “need beddings, hygiene kits and shelter support.” There is “no adequate toilets to serve all IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Access to safe drinking water is difficult.”

In addition to living in inadequate temporary shelters without even the most basic amenities like toilets and drinking water, Protection Cluster Mindanao also reports children of IDPs getting sick, stressed and malnourished.

Gun battle

Reports reaching the headquarters of the Philippine Army’s First Infantry Division reveal that the latest clash erupted around 8:45 in the morning of Aug. 15, when troops of the 20th Special Forces Company encountered more or less 35 armed men in the boundary of Barangays Baiwas and Pamatsaken in Sumisip.

The 20th Special Forces Company belongs to the 4th Special Forces Battalion, a unit specially trained in counter-terrorism by US Green Berets advisers as part of the “Balikatan” exercise series, and were in the area to re-supply a jungle outpost in Barangay Baiwas.

The exchange left five soldiers wounded; three of them described as critical. One died at during surgery at the  Camp Navarro Station Hospital (CNGH) in Zamboanga City, where they were brought after being airlifted from Basilan Island by a UH1H helicopter two hours after the fighting.

Military sources could not confirm what damage was inflicted unto the suspected rebel group members, saying only that operatives saw their antagonists running towards a rubber plantation while carrying their dead and wounded.

The chief of Task Force Basilan, Army Colonel Romy Yugyug, said the encounter led them to declare a “triple red alert” status, to prepare for possible retaliation and the pursuit operation that First Division Chief Maj. Gen. Ricardo Rainier Cruz III subsequently launched.

Rubber

Sumisip has been the site of at least 4 fatal encounters between the Army and suspected ASG in the last three months.

And while the group gained notoriety for their kidnap-for-ransom activities, the armed men the soldiers fought seemed to be focused on control over lucrative rubber farms.

In a Regional Peace and Order Council meeting held in Isabela City, also in Basilan, 12 days before the Sumisip clash, Acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) expressed the need for a “pro-active” approach to the problem.

Basilan Province, excluding Isabela City, forms part of the ARMM.

Hataman, during the meeting, asked concerned agencies for “specific interventions” to address concerns related to the operation of the Tumajubong Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Integrated Development Cooperative (Tarbidci).

Last month, farm workers from Tarbidci were attacked while on their way to the plantation. Five died and 22 others were wounded, including armed men the cooperative employed to provide security, in the assault that the military subsequently linked to ASG.

Later, the same group attacked a military detachment whose area of responsibility included the cooperative’s rubber plantations. The pursuit operation resulted in the mid-July clash that killed 11 soldiers, wounded 18 more and lead to the internal displacement Protection Cluster Mindanao reported. (Reported by Jong Cadion for Pecojon.PH/knr)